Dilettante's Diary

May 21/07

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Reviewed here: Paris Je T'Aime (Movie); The Valet (Movie); Away From Her (Movie);The God Delusion (Religion/Science); The Water's Lovely (Mystery/Crime); Everything in This Country Must (Two Short Stories and a Novella); Singled Out (Mystery/Crime)

Paris Je t’aime (Movie) concept by Tristan Carn and Emmanuel Benbihy; various segments written and directed by Grard Depardieu, Joel and Nathan Cohen, Gus Van Sant, Olivier Assayas, Frdric Aubertin and many others; starring: Juliette Binoche, Rufus Sewell, Emily Mortimer, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Steve Buscemi, Natalie Portman, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Willem Dafoe, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood and many others.

You may have noticed that we’re on a bit of a French thing this year. So this collection of eighteen short films set in Paris was a no-brainer. While I wouldn’t want you to think we attended the movie just in the hopes of seeing our son’s kitchen window in the upper corner of the screen during the scene in Pre La Chaise Cemetery, I am happy to report, that the scene did show the cemetery pretty much as it looks from his window.

This movie feels a bit like one of those festivals where they showcase short segments by various hopeful writers. Each one tries to dazzle you in their own way. At first you’re afraid that the pieces are going to be too scripted, too clever, in order to make maximum impact in minimum time; they don’t have the chance to breathe and expand in the natural way of full-length movies. But gradually, you get used to the rhythm and the quick changes of location and mood. It surprised me, though, that there wasn’t anything radically experimental or avant-garde on offer. Some of the films are naturalistic, some surrealistic, some fantasy, some slice-of-life, but they all fit pretty comfortably into the mainstream movie style. Perhaps that’s because the directors are all – as far as I can tell – well established in their various countries.

I won’t bore you with a critique of all 18 films, but first a few that struck out with me. A contribution from the Coen brothers, starring Steve Buscemi as a tourist on a Mtro platform, is probably supposed to be amusing in a droll sort of way but it just made me feel that people are rotten. A vampire segment (directed by Vincenzo Natali) had nothing to recommend it, as far as I could see, except arty photography. One piece that looked promising in the preview – a couple of clowns in white face doing mime (Sylvain Chomet) – turned out not to be as charming as it was apparently meant to be.

Strange to say, one of the most effective pieces (Isabel Coixet) was virtually just a short story read in voice-over while acted out on screen: a guy has arranged a meeting in a restaurant to tell his wife he’s leaving her. Inspite of the unimaginative technique, it conveyed a very strong truth about living. Another very striking piece (Oliver Schmitz) was about an injured man and a paramedic who attends to him. Gravelly-voiced Nick Nolte makes an appearance in what is essentially one long speech with a neat twist at the end (Alfonso Cuarn). Some of the best acting comes from Gena Rowland and Ben Gazarra, as estranged partners meeting in a restaurant where Grard Depardieu (the director of the piece) hovers solicitously as a waiter. In just a couple of simple scenes, a piece about a single mom and her baby (Walter Salles) makes a powerful statement. I didn’t love a wacky piece about a guy who gets entangled with some Asian beauties (Christopher Doyle) but you had to admire the lan, the panache and the colour.

Do all these disparate elements really add up to one work of art? Do they, as a whole, say anything about Paris that couldn’t be said about any other major city? I was thinking not – until the final installment (Alexander Payne). It features a working class American tourist traipsing around Paris on her own. In voice-over she reads, in a hilariously bad accent, an essay that she has written for a French class about her trip. While sitting on a park bench, this rather bland, unremarkable woman comes to a profound insight that Paris has inspired in her. And so you feel: mais oui! this is the kind of place where such a thing can happen.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The Valet (Movie) written and directed by Francis Veber; starring Gad Elmaleh, Alice Taglioni, Daniel Auteil, Kristin Scott Thomas

While making a house call, a doctor begins to feel chest pains. Throwing the patient out of bed, the doctor lies down and starts taking his own pulse and blood pressure. When the worried bystanders offer to call for help, he tells them not to call a doctor because doctors are all frauds.

When a movie has that as one of the opening scenes, you can’t help thinking it must have something going for it. And this one does have a lot to like, even though it may not be as brilliant as director Francis Veber’s unforgettable Le Diner Des Cons. The main story here concerns a supermodel who, by outrageous contrivance, must live with a parking valet and pretend to be his girlfriend in order to allay the suspicions of the wife of her billionaire lover. The farcical situations pile up with a complexity worthy of Feydeau; it gets hard to sort out who’s spying on whom and who’s lying to whom. There are some wonderful minor characters: the valet’s scuzzy pal who can’t believe what’s happening; the valet’s equally bewildered parents; and that marvellous old actor with the rubbery face (Michel Aumont) who plays the doctor. Best of all, the parts of the model (Alice Taglioni) and the valet (Gad Elmaleh) are beautifully played; their relationship develops into something truly sweet and touching.

But some other aspects of the movie are a bit off-putting. That business of rich French philanderers with their Nancy Reagan wives wears a bit thin, no matter how stunning the women’s wardrobes. And I had trouble understanding the model’s attitude to the billionaire. One minute she seems ingenuous and sincere, the next moment sly and conniving. So it’s hard to decide how you feel about her. Maybe my uneasiness about the whole thing had something to do with the fact that a certain famous perfume company was listed in the credits at the start of the movie and then, in one of the scenes, along came a huge billboard advertisement for that perfume. Some gratuitous slapstick lowered the tone a bit further (although, for the French, maybe a bow to Jerry Lewis is de rigeur.) And why is it that whenever these glitzy people roar up in their posh cars, there’s always a parking space handy? Given that this is a farce, I’m willing to cut it a certain amount of slack in the believability department, but such abundance of parking spaces in Paris? That’s fantasy, not comedy.

Rating: C minus (where "C" = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Away From Her (Movie) written by Sarah Polley (from the short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro); directed by Sarah Polley; starring Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy

I went to this movie knowing only that it’s the directorial debut by our own Sarah Polley and that, therefore, anyone who cares about Canadian movies should see it. Oh, yes, and I’d heard that it starred Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.

So I get to the movie and I find out it’s based on a short story by Alice Munro – what’s more, one that I remember very well because it had such an impact on me when I read it years ago. And I’m thinking: Sarah Polley how dare you try to adapt Alice Munro? Do you think you’re good enough to tinker with her dialogue, her scenes, her settings, her story? Who do you think you are?

Well, it turns out that Ms Polley is one very talented young woman. For starters, her adaptation is pretty damn good. Although my memory of the original story is skimpy on detail, I was pretty sure at times that we were watching interpolated scenes. Admittedly, some of them work better than others. An encounter with a punk rocker in a retirement home is brilliant. And, as a director, Ms Polley moves those old pros around as if she had just as much experience and expertise as they do. In fact, I think this may signal the beginning of a new era of Canadian film: we take our best literature and we give it very sensitive, intelligent interpretation. Mind you, there’s an inherent difficulty in adapting something as delicate as a Munro story to film. Inevitably, things tend to get blown up and expanded. What seemed utterly convincing in the context of a little story may seem a trifle less so on the screen. But if you live in a country that has to have its own movies, then this is the kind of movies you should have.

For me, the secret to a slow-moving, naturalistic movie like this is that everything has to seem very real. Gordon Pinsent is completely believable and sympathetic in the role of the gentle, long-suffering husband who is watching his wife succumb to Alzheimer’s. (We’re a long way from the Rowdyman persona here.) Their relationship feels authentic in every little detail – from the way they lie together in bed to the way they sit at the kitchen table. But I did have a bit of a problem with that kitchen and several of the other interiors: not enough clutter, not enough of a lived-in look. Is that a budget issue – didn’t they have enough money to pay somebody to mess up the set appropriately? In a similar way, I found some of the staff of the retirement home a little too spiffy, too made-up, too polished – more like actors in a movie than real people. And who ever heard of a retirement home, or any health care facility for that matter, where the same staff members are unfailingly on duty every time you visit?

The big question with a project like this is whether the movie would be truer to the spirit of the original story if you had an ordinary-looking older actress, not a star, in the role of the wife. It probably would. But that’s not to criticize Julie Christie. She deserves the work as much as anybody. It’s not exactly her fault that we bring to the movie a lot of our history with her. Anyway, if you didn’t have her megastar power on board, the movie probably wouldn’t get made. Plus, you’d miss some amazing work by Ms. Christie. It’s phenomenal what she does – letting the beauty of the soul shine through the ravages of dementia. The moods that cross her face in fleeting seconds are like a stormy sky on a sultry day. I was ok with the fact that she seems a little too young – the script makes the point that the onset of her Alzheimer’s is early – but it struck me as a bit incongruous that she moves with an athletic grace that would shame many fifty-year-olds. In the end, though, I totally fell in love with the fact that – presumably with the help of a dialogue coach – the great star manages to make herself sound 99.9 percent Canadian.

 

Rating: C+ (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The God Delusion (Religion/Science) by Richard Dawkins, 2006

This is one of the rare cases where I had read quite a lot about a book before checking it out myself. (As you know, I usually avoid reviews of books, movies, plays, etc. until I’ve formed my own impressions of them.) In fact, when I saw this book on the "quick loan" shelf of the library, it didn’t seem all that compelling to me because I was pretty sure what it was going to say. But next day, I woke up feeling curious about it what it really did say. Not to mention that I have very much enjoyed several of Richard Dawkins’ scintillating books. So I rushed down to the library first thing and luckily this book was still there.

What a treat. I raced through it in one weekend. I always find it bracing to read good science writing. Scientists have a refreshing, counter-intuitive way of looking at the world that is so different to the way I was trained . And Dawkins is the best writer in the world for science aimed at a general audience. He offers the perfect mixture of information, illustrative anecdote, intriguing detail and engaging tone. Best of all, his writing is clear, cogent and lucid. You almost never have to wonder what a sentence means. Mind you, I could have helped to make the occasional phrase a little clearer if anybody had thought to ask me. (I’m always offering similar help to tryos like John Updike, Philip Roth, Alice Munro and Doris Lessing but they seem to be determined to go their own way and be damned.) In this book, the science is necessarily skimmed over somewhat quickly. I was glad to have read a fair bit of evolutionary science previously so that I was familiar with the terms and concepts being tossed around. Still, the technical stuff should be accessible to anybody moderately willing and able.

Essentially, The God Delusion is Professor Dawkins’ apologia for aetheism. Like Rodney Dangerfield, Professor Dawkins seems to be claiming that the poor, misunderstood aetheist "can’t get no respect." At first, that sounded a bit crybaby to me but he does point out lots of injustices towards aetheists in today’s world, particularly in the US. Some of the hate letters he and his colleagues have received from religious opponents, as quoted in this book, are among the most obscenely violent things I’ve ever read.

Professor Dawkins covers his subject exceedingly well. Every time I came up with an objection or a question, the professor answered it within a couple of pages. Even so, I would love to take up many points with the professor and explore them further. When talking about how religion has come to spread in populations, Professor Dawkins refers to the "meme" theory whereby ideas or cultural trends are thought of as "memes" that spread in a population in a way analogous to the spread of genes by natural selection. He cites many reasons for the success of the religion meme in propagating itself but, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t explicitly mention one of the most interesting ones. I think it was a book by Daniel Dennet that brought the idea to my attention and it has been many years since I read it but I think it goes something like this. If you think of the religion meme as a kind of virus that has to evolve "clever" ways to spread itself, then religion has a special hook that gives it a tremendous advantage. That’s a built-in principle that says "if you don’t accept me you are doomed to eternal death and horrible punishment". Isn’t that an awfully effective way to get people to let a thought take hold in their minds?

While The God Delusion teems with thought-provoking material, I’ll just mention one area in which it pushed my thinking in a new direction. Professor Dawkins doesn’t have much sympathy with the tendency of scientists like the late Stephen Jay Gould to bend over backwards to placate religionists. The idea is that science and religion are seen to deal with different kinds of truths and that the one, therefore, should not encroach on the other’s subject matter. But, why not? asks Professor Dawkins. If you claim that your saviour rose from the dead three days after his death and that he speaks to you now and hears your prayers, you are talking about what you claim are facts, so why shouldn’t science ask for your evidence of them as it would with any other claimed facts? Good point, it seems to me.

Still, after reading the entire book with great enjoyment, I came away thinking – or feeling – that there seemed to be something lacking in Professor Dawkins’ assessment of religion. Doesn’t the fact that it has been a tremendous support for people in difficult times mean that it speaks to some of our deepest human needs? In fact, we might almost say that it was religion that enabled many previous generations to survive. Is it possible that, without religion, the human race might not have lasted this long? Maybe we need a better understanding of the role religion has played in anthropological and psychological terms before we scrap it completely.

Looking at it in terms of individuals rather than societies, religion has infused the lives of many of my friends and relatives with meaning and inspired them in truly noble and loving ways. Most of them don’t have much truck with the dogmatic aspects of it, let alone the politics, but the spiritual and ethical tradition – I’m talking here mainly about the Judaeo-Christian version and especially Roman Catholicism – has enriched them and helped to make them very fine human beings. It seems to me that it would be hard to argue that they would be better off without their religion.

Granted, Professor Dawkins cites studies which find that altruism does not necessarily stem from religion. Experiments in ethics have shown that religious people and professed aetheists make much the same moral choices. But it doesn’t seem to me that Professor Dawkins adverts to the fact that the aetheists participating in the tests have grown up in civilizations that have been largely shaped by religion and that this could be why these non-believers have much the same ethics as believers. Professor Dawkins does refer to some studies of people in aboriginal societies who presumably have not been influenced by the ethical values of the dominant world religions and who yet make much the same ethical choices as the people in the developed world. But the evidence on this point seems not very strong.

Which is not to deny the truly horrendous harm caused by religion in many cases, from the ancient past right up to the present. But to use that as a reason to reject religion seems to me problematic. The mechanisms of my brain have become a little rusty since the days when I studied logic as a subject in the seminary but it seems to me that it was posited as a rule of clear thinking that you could not argue against the use of something because of the abuse of it. I suppose Professor Dawkins’ response would be that the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion have far outweighed its benefits. But I can’t help thinking that the difference between our attitudes to religion, while agreeing on many aspects of the discussion, simply comes down to the fact that one of us has always breathed an air that is very sympathetic to religion while the other moves in circles that are much more skeptical.

 

The Water’s Lovely (Mystery/Crime) by Ruth Rendell, 2006

What a pleasure to find that Ruth Rendell, at the top of her form in her late seventies, is still turning out great books. This one is somewhat in the vein of the novels she writes under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. It’s not strictly a who-dunnit, more of a novel revolving around the knowledge of a crime committed long ago. The question of what to do with that knowledge provides the main thrust of the narrative. Around it, Ms. Rendell has clustered a marvellous cast: a young man trying to escape from his hypochondriacal mother; a busy do-gooder with nefarious intentions; a woman in her sixties trying to find a boyfriend; her schizophrenic sister who spouts passages from the Book of Revelation; her daughters and their boyfriends; a retired military type with an obsession about India; an old lady whose main interest in life is her two rabbits. In some ways, the book works simply as a delicious gossip about all these people and their complicated inter-actions. In fact, the comings and goings among them remind me of Iris Murdoch novels even if the intellectual content of their conversation never quite reaches the Murdoch level. Still, the characterizations are good and the psychology is believable, unlike that in some crime novels (see review of Singled Out below). I’m particularly relieved that there’s none of that snobbery that comes through in the way some British authors condescend to lower-class characters. One of the most interesting minor characters here is a homeless alcoholic possessed of a wit, ingenuity and self-knowledge missing in many of the people he encounters. A couple of points in the book stretch credulity a bit, there are perhaps one or two implausible coincidences and I found the egocentricity of one upper-class twit unbelievable. But what critic would carp about such minor flaws when the book as a whole is such a good read?

 

Everything in This Country Must (Novella and Two Short Stories) by Colum McCann, 2000

Another much-lauded young Irish writer you have to know about if you are the kind of person who has to know about these things. (See Dilettante’s Diary review of his Dancer on the page titled "Books" -- towards the bottom of the navigation bar on the left.) The writing is a touch poetic and fanciful for my taste but not overly so. The first of the two short stories "Everything in This Country Must" tells about a farmer’s attempt to rescue a horse whose foot is caught under a rock in a raging river. It took me almost to the end to figure out what the story was really about and, when I did, it struck me as a very bleak commentary on the Catholic-Protestant situation in Northern Ireland. The second short story, "Wood" seems to have a somewhat similar theme, although the piece is so oblique as to be almost a fragment rather than a story. "Hunger Strike", the novella (about 100 pages), focuses on a thirteen-year-old boy and his widowed mother who are living temporarily in a trailer by the sea near Galway. The boy’s thoughts keep going back to his uncle, a prisoner on a hunger strike in Derry. It’s a delicate portrait of the relationship between a mother and son at a difficult time but mostly it’s a shockingly vivid – almost too vivid – accounting of what it’s like to be a thirteen-year old boy. It’s all there in striking detail: the heroics, the egocentricity, the brutality, the lust, the self-glorifying fantasies, the playfulness, the courage, the sentiment and even the tenderness, at times.

 

Singled Out (Crime/Mystery) by Simon Brett, 1995

The author’s name on this well-thumbed book leapt out at me from the "recommended" shelf at the library. It seemed that he was somebody I’d heard a lot about. The first few pages of the book turned out to be very pornographic, so I felt it my duty to read on in the interest of finding out just how bad it was. There wasn’t much more sex after the opening but that’s not necessarily a  recommendation. We have here the story of a single woman, a successful broadcaster, who, in the 1970s, decides to have a baby with an anonymous stranger for the father. That has momentous consequences when the story jumps forward to the 1990s. The psychology is strictly tabloid and the characters are, at best, one dimensional. Among the heroine’s colleagues, for example, are an egregiously spiteful woman-hater and a ludicrously campy gay man. So why did I keep reading? Mr. Brett has a way with a story. He makes you keep reading to find out what’s going to happen. And the ending provides the nasty kick that you keep hoping for.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com